These charities want to send your old USB sticks to North Korea

Human Rights Foundation and Forum 280 seek to counter North Korean censorship with USB sticks full of banned content

I can’t find figures for exactly how many USB flash drives are sold each year, but given I can see five without leaving my desk, I’m going to go with a ballpark estimate of “a lot”. If you have more than you know what to do with (or more than you have USB ports to put them in), two charities would love for you to consider sending them their way.

They are Forum 280 and the Human Rights Foundation, which have launched Flash Drives for Freedom. What do they want to do with your old USB sticks? Well, they want to wipe them clean and fill them up with all kinds of media, including Hollywood films, South Korean TV shows and Korean Wikipedia.

They then want to smuggle them into North Korea at great personal risk. Distributing this kind of content is very, very illegal in the secretive state, where government censorship is just a part of life.  

Sidestepping censorship

After food and water, the next thing people in North Korea want is knowledge,” Alex Gladstein, chief strategy officer of the Human Rights Foundation told the BBC. “For many of us, flash drives are becoming an obsolete technology – we have the cloud, and we can share things. But every single flash drive could save someone's life.”

The campaign began last week, and the charities have already received 200 for the cause, which is helpful because purchasing retail USB sticks for the project is prohibitively expensive. Especially when you consider the cost of transport, bribes and focus groups (yes, really) to establish the most popular programmes for Korean citizens. Just in case you’re wondering, Friends, Desperate Housewives, Spartacus and The Hunger Games are all namechecked. “Arnold Schwarzenegger, Leonardo DiCaprio and Sylvester Stallone are very popular,” adds Gladstein.

How do the USB sticks get seen? While it’s true that computers and laptops remain rare in North Korea, the Notel is an increasingly popular solution. It’s a cheap, versatile media player that, crucially, is extremely easy to conceal. Although they’re legal in the country, Reuters explains that each one is required to be registered, allowing the authorities to keep tabs on the spread of foreign media.

“To avoid getting caught, people load a North Korean DVD while watching South Korean dramas on a USB stick, which can be pulled out,” a North Korean defector explained to Reuters. “They then tell the authorities, who feel the heat from the Notel to check whether or not it has been recently used, that they were watching North Korean films.”

While westerners might not miss a USB stick or two, it can make a major difference to citizens living under censorship. As Sharon Stratton, an organiser of the campaign told Wired: “You’ll probably never meet the person who has it, but you can be sure that someone will have it and will be happier for it.”

READ NEXT: Life behind the Wall – censorship in China

Images: quiroso and Stephan used under Creative Commons

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